Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the Tralfamadorians a lot. They are an alien race in his books, and one thing that always interested me about them is that they live freely in time. They compare the human experience to being on a train car in an iron suit that’s bolted in place, with a helmet that has an eight foot hollow tube attached to it. Humans only see the Universe through that hollow tube, and for that reason we can only experience time as single moments. The Tralfamadorians however, see all times at once. When someone dies, they know the person is alive in another time, so they aren’t terribly concerned with death. When confronted with death, their response is, “So it Goes.”
I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I’m trying to capture a feeling I remember as a kid playing in the Ravine in those recent paintings, and I’m failing at it. Each painting ends up with a fence of brambles between the viewer and the scene, because I can’t get there from here. The arrow of time moves in only one direction for us, and unless I get spaghettified in a black hole, that’s all I’ll ever know.
At the same time, I learned that my wife’s grandmother died this week. She wasn’t a big part of my life, and we hadn’t spent much time with her since we got married, but I know Rachel has good memories of her. I know it’s a strangely hard time for Rachel, and I want to better empathize with her. I guess I’m reacting a bit against the Tralfamadorian response right now.
On one hand, I understand why the Tralfamadorians took pity on Billy Pilgrim for only being able to see three dimensions. On the other hand, maybe I should be glad that I can’t see the fourth dimension. I am on this rail car, and I can’t get off. I can’t stop at yesterday or tomorrow, I’m forever stuck in now, and that should cause me to take better care to appreciate now, since I’ll never be here ever again.
If I could see the Universe like a Tralfamadorian, there wouldn’t be any reason to cure a boredom, since I could just exist in a time of excitement. I wouldn’t care if there were pain around me, because I would just choose to look at a happier time. And, importantly, I wouldn’t be able to have true empathy or compassion because I wouldn’t know what long-suffering is.
Maybe, it’s a good thing then to have heavy moments in life. Maybe it’s good to struggle and slog through things at times because it makes the happy times more enjoyable. Maybe it’s good to mourn when people die because it means you loved them when they were alive. Spring means more to people who have a winter.
Anyway – that’s what was going through my head as I painted this. It’s a painting of a photo I took a few days ago that looks like this:
There were a few things I wanted to do when I painted this.
1) I wanted to take my time, and paint the details. I like the loose style of Joseph Zbukvic, but I also enjoy painting things a little tighter some times. I want to eventually get to the point where I can paint something that is simultaneously loose and tight, but I won’t be able to do that if I don’t practice both.
2) I wanted to try to get the sense of depth that I see in the photo through more than just the leading lines. I wanted to give the illusion of depth by painting the distance as a blue-grey blur, and tighter in the foreground where things should come into sharp focus.
3) I wanted to paint with a limited palette. I ended up using a lot more colors than I wanted to-so it goes. This painting is done with Raw Umber, Quin Purple, Hansa Yellow, Quin Red, Ultramarine Blue, Perinone Orange, and a convenience violet I made a while ago that I’m trying to use up so I can fill that well with another pigment.
4) I wanted to paint from top down and really follow the bead. I almost succeeded with this. I was successful with it until I painted the rails, but I tried to correct and go back to top down once I saw what I was doing.
5) I wanted to say something.
I started with the distant background, which is entirely out of focus. I avhieved that by painting wet in wet. Clean water, then UM Blue and Raw Umber for grey, and Hansa Yellow to mix on the paper to get green. I let that mix on the paper on its own, and wanted to not revisit it. Unfortunately, when I was finished it felt too light, so I touched it up. I was nervous to do that because I had spent so much time on this painting by then, but it turned out ok.
Then, I tried to paint the distant railroad ties and the rails with wet on wet again – hoping they would blur. I ended up being tighter than I wanted, but I can’t go back and fix that without lifting and I’m worried that would just be mud mud mud – so I left it alone.
I then went in to try to paint the foreground, and spent a lot of time on those rocks. I got them about 60% done and then put down the foreground railroad tie, and the letters on that rail shoe. (I don’t know what it’s really called, but shoe seems appropriate.) At some point, I went back with my convenience violet to try to get crisp lines on those near rocks. I wasn’t happy with them until I did that. Then I was ok with them and vowed to leave them alone.
The color of the rails was hard to get right. It honestly feels too brown, but that’s a pretty close match to the color in the photo so I’m ok with it. I kept fighting the urge to make them bluer, because I’m my mind metal is bluish. But, these are iron, and that shoe says something about 1936, so by now they are pretty rusted. I decided to try to match the colors in the photo, and I think that was the right move.
It’s really tempting to paint the details all very dark because that high contrast makes them pop easily. But I wanted to try to use more saturated versions of the base hues as well. And, the lettering is a pretty significant detail, but they are just shadows really, so I needed to use a watery grey for them. (I also decided to put my initials there, because I’m a kid writing my name in the cement.)
At this point I really wanted to fix the background, but decided I would wait until the foreground was done, in case that made the painting feel right once it was added. It turned out to still need work after I finished the details, so I went back as quickly as I could. I really didn’t want to lose all the light. I painted a clean wash of water on the background, and laid in some more UM blue and Hansa Yellow. I think that was the right move.
When I was done, I realized I had really crisp edges at the end of the rails. That seemed to be detracting from the “depth by lack of focus” idea, so I carefully softened those edges with clean water. The background had dried by now, so I had to be careful to wet the whole background to avoid blossoms, and to avoid crisp edges around that retouched area, but I think it worked ok.
So, there you have it, my latest painting.
So it goes.